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What I Learned from the Hurricane

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With Hurricane Irene bearing down on us and news stations blaring 24/7 about the states of emergency being declared all around us, my husband and I dutifully prepared. Battery backup for the sump pump-check. Backup pump-check. Sandbags around the pump hole-check. Bottled water-check. Canned food-check. Flashlights-check. Candles-check. Then we headed to the liquor store to stock up for a hurricane dinner party (hey, we live inland, we had to have some fun).

As it turned out, Irene was a flop–at least in our area. But the preparations and evacuations were reminders of the Katrina legacy.  Understandably, no one wanted to repeat those horrific scenes of people who could not be rescued for days. But how would people now respond to what now appeared to be an overblown response?

In some ways, the situation was like a real life drill, so we could see how things worked.  Did our governance structures allow for quick response? Did our communications pathways let us reach affected stakeholders quickly? I was interested to watch each mayor, governor and federal agency leader acting out their own crisis response plan.   Which made me think of the top four things organization can do to be prepared for communicating in a crisis:

1. Build multiple pathways to your customers. Be able to reach them via text, phone, cellphone or email. But boots on the ground may be necessary as well. Newark New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker actually knocked on doors to get people to evacuate. (I noticed he also responded directly to a constituent on Twitter who was worried about his mother’s loss of power and offered to go check on her.) Reinforce the pathways to vital communications by not overwhelming them with junk, or they won’t respond when you need them to. In my area, PEPCO left voicemail for customers warning them about possible power outages. This was useful. But part of the message suggested checking the PEPCO website for updates. Oops.

2. Develop a quick-response team. This may not just be top organizational leadership. It may include others who can connect to different parts of your staff or customer base.  Prepare the team on how to respond to media inquiries.  Ultimately you may bring on a crisis PR group to help, but in the initial hours your own team will need to handle the job.  One person should be the “face” of the organization if you must go on television. This was one of the big missteps during the BP oil spill crisis. For days and days, there were multiple people at the microphone, resulting in coverage that said  “who’s in charge here, anyway?”

3. People come first. Not your company/entity.  That means being as honest as possible in responses, as timely as possible, and as transparent as possible about your process for fixing the problem.  The gold standard of crisis response remains the Tylenol tampering scare of 1982. The fact that they responded quickly, put safety first, and changed their packaging were both smart moves for the brand and for the customers.

4. Maintain post-crisis communications. Tell the story of what happened, what you did about it, what you could have done better, and what worked. Giving your narrative and keeping the communications lines open after a crisis builds trust for future response. This may be some of the hardest work ahead for the folks responding to Irene. Mayor Bloomberg will have a delicate messaging job to do in the coming hours and days to ensure New Yorkers don’t roll their eyes the next time he or a future Mayor orders an evacuation. It may not matter today, but it could save future lives if he does it right.

Two Words to Remember When it Comes to Crisis PR: Be Prepared

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Periodically, I offer guest posts by colleagues.  Here’s one on crisis communications by Evan Nierman, founder of Red Banyan Group, a public relations and crisis management firm that provides integrated strategic communications counsel to organizations and individuals across a variety of industries.

The famous motto of the Boy Scouts is “be prepared.”  It’s good advice for everyone, but especially for companies looking to avoid dealing with a crisis that could damage their reputation and impact the bottom line.

In this day and age, thanks in part to a 24-hour news cycle and the way social media enables stories (especially negative ones) to spread like wildfire, it is more important than ever that organizations be prepared to face the inevitable crisis which could be just around the corner.  There is no reason to wait for a full-blown crisis to erupt–by the time trouble strikes it is almost too late.

Clearly, some crises are impossible to forecast.  I can recall one past client where the company’s senior executives were blindsided by very naughty personal behavior by the CEO which became instantly public thanks to a spurned wife who was tired of his philandering and drug abuse.  In that case, the company was forced to undertake a strategy emphasizing how capable senior managers would shoulder the workload while the CEO was away addressing his personal issues, and assuring shareholders that the impact on the company would be minimal.

Most companies can predict with some degree of accuracy what kind of challenges they might face in the future.  Government agencies charged with oversight will inevitably make a mistake somewhere along the line, and most nonprofit organizations will at some point face heavy scrutiny and perhaps strident criticism for how they spend their budgets.

Having a good crisis communications plan in place means that the organization can invest time during a calm period where cooler heads prevail to make well-reasoned, strategic decisions without the intense pressure and time constraints for decision-making that are brought on by a crisis.

Who Should Review Your Crisis PR Plan?

  • The person who oversees communications for the organization
  • The organization’s top executive
  • Legal counsel
  • Someone outside the organization with an expertise in crisis PR

For those companies who have not yet developed a crisis plan, having one in place is money well-spent.  It can help provide peace of mind to the organization while eliminating the ramp-up time required by crisis PR experts brought in to fight the fire once it is underway.

Companies which already have a plan in place should update it periodically and may want to have it reviewed by experts in order to ensure that it’s as effective and comprehensive as possible.  At the end of the day, a crisis communications plan is like a strong insurance policy: you never want to be without it when the day comes that you need it. The bottom line: be prepared.

–Evan Nierman